Women traditionally have had a much harder time breaking into senior ranks in law compared to men. Young accomplished women, fresh with degrees, are picked up by law firms in significant numbers, but a few years down the line they fail to be represented equally across the leadership level.
Australian census data show that there are twice as many women as men employed in the profession while they are in their 20s. The balance starts to shift in the other direction though as these young lawyers begin to enter their 30s and continues to widen with age. By the time they are in their 50s, there are nearly 4 men to every woman employed in the sector.
This reflects general trends that have been observed before. Young women tend to be over-represented in entry level and associate positions but following that aren’t able to transform their early success into lasting careers with partnership positions. Rather, women start to leave the profession or else are likely to work in the sector at a lower status than their counterparts, earn less income, and work part-time.
A number of factors are at play to result in this disparity. These may include a deep-seated and ingrained gender bias, long work hours, heavy workloads and inflexible work practices. Each of these are compounded when a woman opts to start a family, which makes it harder for them to balance the pressures of the legal profession with those arising from a traditional family dynamic, where the emphasis on parental responsibility has largely been more on women than men.
Tackling this issue is important not only because women represent half of the legal talent pool but also because financially there are significant costs to a firm when a solicitor leaves. These can range from $61,000 for smaller firms to about $100,000 for a larger firm.
An interesting way to address the gender imbalance was recently discussed by a leading corporate law firm at the Advancing Women in Professional Services conference last month. Slater and Gordon, who boast nearly 55% of their executive directors being women, have attributed their success in this regard to a new performance review system that places emphasis on objectives achieved and work done rather than the more traditionally used hours worked approach.
By shifting the focus away from time spent professionally to the quality and diversity of work accomplished, including development of staff, the firm has been able to significantly reduce female attrition and create a workspace where taking up flexible work practices is not frowned upon, as has usually been the case.
The above example shows that, if dealt with seriously and with some creativity, gender ratios can be significantly improved. By continuing to make such concerted efforts, the legal profession can go a long way in increasing women in the workforce and losing out from a drop in available talent.